The Rules – a self important essay on creativity

A few people have asked me about the Rules of the PantsOfDeath musical endeavour.

I am amazingly flattered that anyone would be interested in my creative process at all. It would seem to be hideously arrogant of me, given my dodgy musical output, to claim to have any answers at all, so I will lay out my rules and a few other things I do and if they are of any help to anyone ever than that will be great, and if not you can all turn around and point and laugh and say “wow Jon, you sure are a nob”!

A little background:

Music was my main creative outlet from the ages of 16 through to about 26. In that time I gathered together some music making tools. I started off as a guitarist, and occasional bassist, but acquired drum machines, a couple of 4 tracks, a couple of dodgy synths and some Yamaha QY series walkstations, and finally a clapped out PC with a Yamaha soundcard and Cakewalk on it. All of this looks like total garbage next to a $10 ios app, but at the time it cost me all I had and I was very proud of the setup.

What this amounted to was me starting off with a guitar and drum machine and 4 track, and 2 effects pedals, and managing to make some music. I finished a track a week for a while at university, which is partly why I failed to attend any lectures or tutorials for my whole second year. They sounded terrible but the process of working with very limited equipment and having to innovate to make any sounds at all was creatively inspiring. By the time I got Cakewalk on my PC I could “do anything” (or so I thought) and as a result became musically constipated. For years my output consisted of 4 or 8 bar snippets, half worked sketches, verses (or choruses) of uncompleted songs.

This seems to be the most common problem for people creating music, coming up with an idea and then failing to go anywhere with it.

After a while I gave up, and eventually threw away dozens of 4 track tapes filled with unfinished ideas. I turned my attention to cartoons which I had been doing on and off since I was 10. Usenet had given way to the World Wide Web and I realized I could publish my cartoons online, so I did that for a while, but ended up becoming blocked there too.

Then in about 1999 I found myself single, in a dead end job, and with a lot of time on my hands and very little to keep my mind occupied. I decided, as an experiment, to see if I could do a cartoon a day for a year. In the end I managed about 3 years, to do this I had to learn some hard lessons about my creative process. These are the “rules” I keep harping on about. They may only apply to me, but a fair amount of research into the creative process of various writers and cartoonists I respect leads me to believe that they are common, if not universal. I believe they can be applied to any creative endeavour including music.
It probably will not come as a surprise to anyone that my creative process was born out of comedy writing techniques, but really any creative endeavour boils down to one simple principle: the combination of two or more existing ideas to create a new or original idea. In comedy this usually involves the combining of jarringly disparate ideas, the humour coming from the tension between the ideas (that is a one sentence précis of about a dozen books on comedy writing there, so might be a little simplistic). In music the same combining and recombining occurs all the time, which is while musical genres evolve from each other in the way they do. Artist A writes a basic PsyTrance track but decides to mix it up a bit by adding a bit of Celtic penny whistle to it, CelticPsy is born, another artist takes a CelticPsy track and remixes it breakbeat drums and CelticPsybreaks is born, and so on and so on.
Ignoring Genres for a moment though, as soon as you start combining multiple parts in a track (drums, synths, bass, guitar, more synths, arps, pads, more drums) you are using the same creative process.

Anyway – all of this could make a very long book, and every aspect of what I have discussed could be debated and contradicted. So getting back to the subject in hand – the Rules.

As I have said a few times my rules are:
1. Finish what you have started
2. Publish what you have finished.

but there is a little more to it than that.

The reason for rule 1 is that sometimes your creative mind does not agree with your conscious mind. Your creative mind may come up with idea X that your conscious mind doesn’t like, or thinks is too derivative or unoriginal, or sounds like crap, but you can’t tell your creative mind anything. It knows what it wants to try and it will not let you do anything else till you have tried it.

This is why the worst thing you can do is to make a conscious decision about what you want to create, you may want to make an Industrial FolkStep track that is completely original, but your creative mind couldn’t give a crap about being cutting edge, or cool, or original, or relevant. It just wants to do what it wants to do and until you let it you will be blocked. The more you self censor, the worse this will be. I spent years trying to sound like other artists, or like genres I liked.

You are not in charge of the creative process, if you try to be you will create nothing, if you let the creative process be in charge you will create something, even if you don’t like it. while I stand by what I said about letting the creative mind have its way, once you have done that it can be overruled. So, for instance, you have been doodling about and you come up with a bassline that goes “whawhawhaahaahaa” using your newly created patch. Creative mind says “YES, we are using that!”, once you have gone with it and done the track/sequence/sketch using that idea, and it sounds like garbage, your creative mind will often fold in the face of the evidence and concede it was a crap idea. But until you’ve tried it the little sod will not let you do anything else.

The reason to publish whatever you produce is because our modern technological age makes that possible with no extra effort or cost, and you are not the best judge of what you create. Many of the pieces I have produced that I was really proud of have gone almost unnoticed, other things I published that I was fairly lukewarm about turned out to be among the most popular things I have done (with my audience), this is true with music and with my cartoons.
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Other supplementary rules

1. You have an infinite number of ideas, all ideas are expendable. If you base an entire track around an idea that you think it great, and the track doesn’t quite work, do not be afraid to ditch the core idea completely, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea, maybe you can use it another time. This is important, if you have a ‘limited resource’ mentality around ideas you will get stuck, if you believe ideas are limitless then you will not.

2. keep working at it, and do not be afraid to remove/replace/rewrite things. Some of the best tracks I have done are ones I got stuck on, I added extra parts, created extra lines and, importantly, I removed bits that were no longer working. Yes, I know this sounds mad in light of all I have said, but I have a number of tracks that do not contain a single part from the original piece, this sort of organic evolution can work very well. It also allows you to convince your creative mind to give up on a crappy idea – if you have a whole track worked out and the only bit that sticks out and sounds wrong is the original idea your creative mind will give up and let it go. Honestly.

3. Do not try to be cool, original, relevant, hip etc. Guaranteed block there, also unlikely to work.

4. Do not try to be perfect. Many of the best bits in music (and comedy!) are serendipitous, they come from accidents, unintended consequences, mistakes, glitches. Let those things happen. Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity

5. Do not take yourself too seriously.

6. If everything else fails – make restrictions. Remember I said before how the ability to do “anything” musically completely killed my creative output. I have heard many others complain about the same effect. Often working with and around limitations is the source of creativity. So if you are completely absolutely blocked make rules and restrictions for yourself. Use only 4 tracks. Use one synth only. Use one sample/snippet/quote. Use only Mono synths etc etc

Works for me anyway..

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2 Responses to The Rules – a self important essay on creativity

  1. Andrew says:

    P.O.D

    Thanks for the essay. Like you, I do the majority of composing on Sydney busses. I still have about 20 unfinished projects sitting in nano studio which is my core app + another 10 to 20 short ideas sitting in Magellan and other apps waiting to be progressed a bit further. I haven’t published anything yet – but perhaps if i spent less time either hunting for new apps which i thing i need then perhaps i would actually finish something.

    Andrew

  2. Jude says:

    Great inspiring piece of writing! Thank you

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